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I don't Practice Santaria

By Paton

I don't practice Santeria

" ... I ain't got no crystal ball. If I had a million dollars well I, I'd spend it all ... " (Sublime)

It's dusk in the city of Matanzas. As usual, the street in front of the casa particular where I am staying came alive towards the end of the afternoon, as soon as most people finished working, at about four or five o'clock in the afternoon.

It's now almost seven o'clock, and I'm nursing a bottle of Cristal beer sitting on the steps of the casa with the owner and one of his friends, taking a well-deserved rest after a day spent walking, exploring the streets of this typical Cuban city, waiting for supper to be served.

Along comes a beggar, one who really looks down on his luck. He asks the owner and his friend if they can give him a little bit of money to eat. They decline. Noticing the yuma, I am, of course, the next one to be hit with the request. (Readers please note that this is NOT typical of Matanzas. Unlike, say, Habana, where you can't take two steps without someone asking you for money, this beggar is one of only two I encountered in seven days spent pacing the calles of Matanzas, and I counted all of three jineteros throughout the city. These three are quite easy to avoid: they are always hanging out at the same spot: the street corner between the Banco Popolar y Ahorro and the San Carlos cathedral, and the only thing they got from me is three cigarettes.)

But I digress ...

I remember that I have a fair bit of small change sitting on the table in my room. So I run in to get it and give it to the beggar.

"You know he's going to drink with that money, not eat", the owner's friend tells me. I assure him that, although I may be a naive tourist, beggars in my home country are quite similar.

He goes on to explain to me that the beggar in question has seen better days. He used to be a drummer in the famous Munequitos de Matanzas. He explains that he had an extraordinary sense of rhythm, which he also put to good use during Santeria rituals. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the poor fellow lost a few of his marbles and is now reduced to his current state.

At this point, the owner jumps in: "Speaking of Santeria, you know there's a Santero who lives very close to here. Would you like him to throw the conchs for you?" Throwing the conchs, he explained, is somewhat similar to a tarot reading for us occidentals. Except it is a form of divination performed with seashells, instead of cards, and instead of discovering what the future holds, the purpose is to determine which Orisha, one is the son or daughter of. (Orishas are, to this day, often hiding behind images of Roman Catholic saints, even that of the patron saint of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre! In the days of the colonies, the European masters of the slaves - whose descendents form a large proportion of Caribbean populations today - allowed the slaves to pray to the saints' images, figuring it was better than to allow them to worship the pagan gods of Africa. However, many slaves kept worshiping the gods of their native religions, simply associating them with particular saints of the Catholic calendar they bore resemblances to ... )

Although I am intrigued by the offer, I politely decline. Although I no longer practice much religion, I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family, and I generally prefer not to fool around with these things. Despite the owner's claims that: "it would only be an interesting experience", I nevertheless stick to my guns.

I don't think much about it afterwards. Then, a day or two later, the two young kids who often drop by to say hi to the lady who does the cooking and the cleaning in the casa drop in again. They are very cute and loveable kids, often helping the lady with her work just to be nice. I see that the little boy, about nine or eight years old, has a Nintendo Game Boy portable video game, which he and his sister, who is about 12 or 13, take great interest in ... I remember that, this time, I brought an almost endless supply of AA batteries for the flash of my camera (unlike my previous trip, during which I bitterly regretted running out of batteries and not being able to buy new ones ... ). I go to my room, and give them four brand new batteries.

The look on their face ... Just like Christmas morning back home!

I don't think much of it afterwards. I go out to continue exploring the city during the day, and like previous nights, I am out on the steps of the house with a beer, just taking in the sights and sounds of the Cuban street at nightfall.

The owner of my casa waves at me from across the street, and tells me to come over, which I do. He had been talking to the people in a house for some time. As soon as I get there, he tells me: "this is the house of the Santero, would you like to visit?" He sometimes has trouble taking "no thanks" for an answer ... "They WANT to meet you", he adds, when I try to reiterate my objections to fooling around with things I don't understand.

At this point, I am more or less shoved/manhandled into the house. Well, well, well, here are my two little video game players in the living room ... It turns out the Santero is their grandfather, with whom they live, as well as their aunt and grandmother. Of course, they all know about the gift of four AA batteries, and that, apparently, is enough to make me an honorary member of their family!

The Santero shows me the room where he conducts his rituals. Luckily for me, it's past five o'clock, and he doesn't do the rituals at night. Despite the owner's pleas, and to my relief, I escape having the conchs thrown for me… (at this point, I should make clear that I have absolutely nothing against Santeria, and that I would encourage any visitor to Cuba who would feel comfortable with it to go ahead and make the most of such an opportunity if it arises. I simply wasn't comfortable with it for a variety of personal reasons, which apply only to me.)

After this, we sat down to talk, and I got to ask the Santero a few questions I had in the back of my mind.

Here, I must make a necessary digression: there was a very specific reason why I stayed in Matanzas. Her name is Maydelin. I met her on a previous trip. She lives in Matanzas, and we have been exchanging letters and phone calls for a while.

In the last letter I got from her before I was to return to Cuba, she made a rather strange request ... She does not usually ask things from me, despite the number of times I assured her that, if there's anything I could do for her, she should ask and I would be happy to help. She has too much pride for that, and that is one of the reasons why I like her so much.

She was asking me for what seemed like an entire wardrobe of white clothes, saying she needed this for a religious ceremony, and that she would explain in more detail when I got to Cuba. A naïve tourist I may be, but the idea that she was asking me to purchase her wedding outfit for her marriage to another man did cross my mind, and disappointed me a little, I must admit. Nevertheless, I did bring her the things she asked for that I could find (in the cold climes where I originate, very few stores carry hand-fans …).

When I did meet up with her in Matanzas, I questioned her about the need for all these white things. Needless to say, I remained somewhat skeptical at her explanation that she had a health problem since she had been in a car accident earlier, and needed to perform a Santeria ritual to get better ... She looked in excellent health to me (not that I'm a doctor or anything), and my North American mindset balks at the idea that health can be improved through religious rituals ... Especially when she told me she would need to shave her head, lay in a circle drawn on the ground for an entire week wearing the white attire, and ultimately drink the blood of a sacrificial animal…

Unconvinced by her explanation, I nonetheless gave her the various white pieces of outfit I had brought (as well as some more "useful" gifts I had brought for her. After all, I had missed both Christmas and her birthday since I last saw her ... ).

At this point in the story, let us return to the Santero's house. After visiting his ritual room, I decided to ask him if he knew about a ritual like the one my friend described and for which she had requested all the white garments.

Indeed he did. "She must be a daughter of Yemaya", the Santero told me. I asked him a bit more about who Yemaya was. "She is both black and white", he explained. "Her skin is black, but her dress is shining white. She comes from the snow, and lives under the sea. She is the guardian of the silence of death".

A few days later, over lunch with Maydelin, I asked matter-of-factly who her Orisha was. "Yemaya", she immediately replied, pointing to a bracelet of tiny coloured beads. I had also learned that these bracelets identified the Orishas to which practitioners of Santeria were devoted to, through a colour-coded scheme, each Orisha being designated by a specific combination of coloured beads.

Just to finish convincing me that I had been wrong to entertain even a shadow of a doubt about my friend's good faith, on a night a few days later, with me again sitting in the steps in front of a house with the required green bottle in hand, I saw a young woman all dressed in white at the head of some sort of procession, marching down the street ... Sure enough, this was another niña de Yemaya on her way to her ritual!

This wouldn't be my only adventure with the Santero and his family, and I may get back to that in another article ...

But for now, suffice to say that yes, if I do one day have a million dollars, I would indeed spend it all to get Maydelin all the white clothes she needs to please Yemaya, if she asks me ... and won't ever doubt her again!


















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